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Thursday, May 01, 2008

SITA SINGS THE BLUES: Animation as Expiation

Some animators can detach themselves emotionally from the scene at the end of the work day. Others pour their souls into a performance so that they actually identify with the character. They live, eat, sleep, breathe the character until the project is done--and sometimes long after it's done!
And still others use their art as a sort of therapy. I'm in the last category and I suspect a sizable amount of our adult viewers might be, too. (By the way--It's okay to like animation after you reach adulthood--the USA is the only country that sees this powerful medium as 'kid stuff' anyway.)
Are things not going your way in your life? Frustrated relationship? Animators can make their own world where Everything is Fine, or get back at the person place or thing that annoys them through the magic of animated art.

Nina Paley, "America's Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist" has achieved expiation (definition: "compensation for a wrong") through animation in her new feature SITA SINGS THE BLUES, which screened at the Rochester High Falls Film Festival last night. All artwork, eding, directing, and visuals were done by Nina Paley; she's one of a very small group of animators who create feature films singlehanded.

SITA SINGS THE BLUES would not exist without the computer. Ironically enough, Nina Paley had her life literally changed by a computer; she got the idea of making a feature film about the trials and tribulations of Sita, wife of Rama (the principals in Valmiki's Sanskrit epic of The Ramayana) after her ex 'dumped' her in one short, brutal email sent from India.

Yet this is anything but a computer-generated picture. The first sections to be completed were amusing Flash-animated shorts set to the 1920s recordings of singer Annette Hanshaw. Nina's cartoon style is breathtaking, and her art direction absolutely sublime. She graciously gave me permission to use some examples from this film in my art direction chapters of PREPARE TO BOARD! and that publication doesn't do justice to the color.

A viewer in the Rochester audience asked what connection Miss Hanshaw's recordings had to a 3,000+ year old legend. Well, after Nina was dumped she crashed with friends in New York City, one of whom played a Hanshaw '78 for her, and Nina was hooked. Many of Hanshaw's songs are about suffering women, Twenties style, but some depict the sexually liberated Flapper of the period. Paley used both types of song for soundtracks, complete with scratchy 78 sounds and needle drops. The music is part of the expiatory process.

The Sita films, which originally appeared on Nina's blog and in film festivals, illustrate important moments in the Ramayana but they had to be stitched into the fabric of a feature film along with the hand-drawn Flash animation that tells a barebones version of Nina's breakup with her 'ex', Dave. This animation is handled completely differently from Sita's tribulations: Sita and Rama appear as animated cutouts, paintings done in classical Indian style, and as beautifully designed Flash characters, caricatured with respect; the modern sequences are sketchy, boiling (mad) and extremely direct. The story point is quickly made. Dave rejects Nina in a brutal email sent from India when she is on the other side of the world. Dave has no character, even his voice is flat. He's the McGuffin that gets Nina thinking about Sita--and while there is no overt identification with the goddess, the theme of the 'woman wronged by her man' does carry through both stories.

The glue that holds the picture together is the extremely entertaining commentary provided by shadow puppets voiced by Bhavana Nagulapally, Aseem Chhabra, and Manish Acharya.
Their analysis of the Ramayana clarifies complicated character relationships and actions and keeps us motivated and interested in Sita's story, which is a lot less direct than Nina's.

Nina Paley has received some criticism (and hate mail) from people who could not possibly have seen the entire film. You can read about this on her blog.
It's difficult to know how people will react to art that involves religious figures. There are many examples of this sort of thing in the Christian canon, which has been prime Hollywood material ever since there was a Hollywood. But the subtext is not religion: it's the rebellion and redemption of the woman, not the Goddess. In fact, the last shot of the film shows Sita and Rama together back in Sward (the Hindu Olympus)--with a twist that I won't give away here.

I think that SITA SINGS THE BLUES is a very original movie and quite an achievement for the artist. It may be problematic getting major distribution for it; it's already on the indie and festival circuit.
I also think that this is a film that will be best viewed more than once.
You can visit the film's site here. See SITA, and judge this film for yourself.
And I'll be visiting the store for a SITA mug!

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